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Many people have written to Forum about Michael Fox's article on Bible Scholarship and Faith-Based Study. In addition, Fox's article has prompted discussions in the blogging community. Danny Zacharias has compiled an informal list of these discussions at Deinde.

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Professor Fox argues that biblical scholarship, as true Wissenschaft, relies on evidence whose meaning and significance is not intentionally predetermined by the Weltanschauung of the scholar. Faith-based biblical study, which "deliberately imports extraneous, inviolable axioms" and does not ultimately rely on evidence, is therefore not real scholarship. The upshot of this view, according to Fox, is that "critical scholarship" can be differentiated from the ever-increasing litany of ethically suspect and/or ideologically motivated biblical interpretations. Although I sympathize with Fox's ire toward interpretive solipsism and ethically repugnant fundamentalism, I find his positivistic conception of Bibelwissenschaft extremely problematic.

Fox's claim that "scholarship rests on evidence" is essentially a reworked version of the positivist idea that meaning is linked to verifiability. For the positivist, an assertion is truly meaningful if and only if it is verifiable; similarly, for Fox, an interpretation is truly scholarship if and only if it pertains to verifiable evidence. Given Fox's reliance on positivism, it should come as no surprise that his conception of scholarship displays the same self-referential incoherence that plagues the entire positivist project. Consider the claim that all "scholarship rests on evidence." Is that a scholarly statement? If it is scholarly then, according to Fox, there should be some evidence to support it; but of course there can be no verifiable evidence for a normative claim like "scholarship rests on evidence." Hence, Fox's programmatic statement of what constitutes scholarship is not itself scholarly, but rather a non-scholarly import! Fox's conception of Bible scholarship is therefore open to the exact same critique leveled against faith-based study: "Any discipline that deliberately imports extraneous, inviolable axioms into its work belongs [not] to the realm [of] scholarship." And here the self-referential incoherence is clear: Scholarship, as Fox envisions it, does not belong to the realm of scholarship.

All of this is to say that Bibelwissenschafthas its own inviolable axioms and in no way constitutes a realm of scientific objectivity or "real" scholarship, as Fox imagines. The real question as I see it is not whether Wissenschaft is compatible with faith-based study, but whether we should strive for a scientific perspective on the Bible at all. What is gained by Fox's Bibelwissenschaft? We certainly do not need it in order effectively to critique fundamentalist interpretations of scripture, nor is it required to combat those who "justify their biases by the rhetoric of postmodern self-indulgence." Additionally, if we deny faith-based Bible study a place at the academic table, we run the risk of restricting the benefits of biblical scholarship to a relatively small esoteric group. I would much rather include faith-based study in the academy (within reason), so that we might confront harmful interpretations head-on.

Adam Wells, Yale University



I appreciate the publication of the provocative article by Michael Fox, "Bible Scholarship and Faith-Based Study: My View." I think I understand the point he makes, when he states, "We are in a time when pseudo-scientific claims are demanding a place in the science curriculum, and biologists and zoologists cannot afford to ignore them. Similar voices wish to insert themselves into academic Bible scholarship, and serious adherents of Bibelwissenschaft should likewise offer opposition." He appears to be responding to the naive and popular level of relativism currently being embraced in Western, "postmodern" culture. I concur.

However, I find his claim, "The best thing for Bible appreciation is secular, academic, religiously-neutral hermeneutic," to be weak in its uncritical acceptance of the rationalism of modernity. At the epistemological level, there is no foundation for a neutral hermeneutic. One cannot escape presuppositions (faith-based assumptions) about the nature of reality, the limits of knowledge, the capabilities of reason, the nature of truth, verification, or the adequacy of language. Rather than claiming that one is ever neutral, I would prefer to challenge my students and myself to keep identifying and examining our presuppositions and to keep asking how they influence interpretation. At that point, we are engaging in critical scholarship.

Rodney Duke, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC



My colleague Michael Fox and I have discussed his article on "Bible Scholarship and Faith-Based Study," and he has encouraged me to submit my own response.

While I concur that teaching in a pluralistic setting requires avoiding questions of faith(s), I balk at my esteemed colleague's claim that "secular" Bible study is a value-neutral activity that marks it alone as scholarship. While I hold no brief for including "faith-based" Bible study in the SBL, it is important to recognize that "secular" study of the Bible is not a postulate-free enterprise. In fact, the most commonly practiced form of "secular" study requires subscription to a set of "beliefs" held by a community.

Historical-critical study postulates that 1) a literary work is most authentically read in light of what we know about the social, political, and historical milieu in which it was composed; 2) questions about its contemporary relevance are not germane; 3) the valuation of such works as sacred texts is irrelevant. These postulates are every bit as determinative of outcomes as the postulates of religious communities, and they provide their own curbs on novelty. For example, concluding that Isaiah's commission to forecast the complete depopulation of the land (Isa 6) is intelligible only as some sort of divinely inspired prediction of the Babylonian desolation of Judah would be judged invalid because it invokes a postulate excluded by the community.

On the other hand, it is untrue that religious communities do not value novelty. Working within their accepted postulates, there is much freedom to discover new readings of biblical texts, as has been shown by some communities' willingness to authorize the ordination of women, permit remarriage after divorce, and fully include gays and lesbians.

The differences between study of the Bible in secular and religious circles should not be viewed under the rubrics of superior vs. inferior, but as different sets of postulates and correlative parameters for readings accepted by communities. True, "secular" study of the Bible has provided a more inclusive community on some levels, but that pragmatic argument is hardly proof that it alone has a claim to be scholarship. Moreover, many (particularly feminist scholars) have reasonably argued that historical-critical study entails its own mechanisms of exclusion.

The larger issue lurking in the background, of course, is whether, and how, we can decide which types of readings are pertinent within the SBL. That, however, is another discussion.

Ronald L. Troxel, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Comments on this article? email: forum@sbl-site.org

Citation: , " More discussion of Faith-Based Scholarship," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited March 2006]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=507

 
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